48 hours in Valletta

The Maltese capital has red telephone boxes and the Maltese speak English – but that’s where the similarities to London end. With its year-round sunshine and lively arts and nightlife scene, it’s fast becoming a favourite European city break.

In many ways, Malta is the Mediterranean in capsule form. It has the beaches and the lagoons for swimming, clifftops and herb-scented hillsides for walking, a dramatic history with battle-scarred landmarks and Renaissance classics, and a breezy, easy-going attitude to life. Parts of its landscape are reminiscent of Istanbul, or Venice, or Greece – and it’s played all three on screen, thanks to the number of films shot on location here. It’s long been a destination for heat-seekers, thanks to its climate clocking up more than 300 days of sunshine a year – and it can easily be T-shirt weather even in November or March, making it a smart choice for half-term escapes or winter sun holidays. Recently, however, its capital, Valletta, has shaken itself awake and is redefining itself as a credible, year-round European city-break destination, with a fresh creative spirit attracting a youthful, switched-on crowd.

Around a decade ago, Valletta was a museum city, its beautiful honey-stone buildings, domes and spires and twisty-turny old-town streets photographed by day-trippers during the day, yet deserted at night; the baroque statues left to talk amongst themselves. Then Malta began snapping its fingers to a new-wave of music festivals, from Isle of MTV with its annual free concert featuring international chart-toppers to Annie Mac’s hands-in-the-air Lost & Found, which holds parties in pools, boats and castles around the island. And the island is also a favourite on the LGBT scene, with Pride taking place every September. As nearby St Julian’s developed into a shiny, high-rise hub of bars and clubs, people started moving back to Valletta – to open cafés, cocktail joints and inventive restaurants for fresh twists on Maltese ingredients. New signs appeared alongside the vintage 1920s shopfronts that give Valletta its character, and small boutique hotels are being cleverly integrated into 17th-century townhouses.

Watch the video below to see how we spent a weekend in Valletta:




Arrive in Valletta and check into your hotel (see Where to Stay below) then stretch your legs by walking to the City Gate, redesigned by Renzo Piano, the architect behind the London Shard, who’s brought a real sense of drama and occasion to the town. The giant limestone slabs glow gold in the evening light, next to his new stilted parliament building, as locals wander up and down for their passeggiata. Then track down Legligin, an old-school cellar bar whose name in Maltese means “glug down a drink”, for a glass of local wine and rapid-fire dishes of tapas.


Legligin by Rama Knight


Start the morning with a flat white or cortado at Lot Sixty One Coffee Roasters, one of a stylish new breed of eateries, then take a peek inside the St John’s Co-Cathedral to see just how wealthy the Knights of St John, who made Malta their medieval base, were. It’s a baroque wonder and it’s difficult to know where to look first: beneath your feet are acres of polychromatic marble, painstakingly inlaid with images of skeletons and angels. On the walls and arches are ornate twirls and leaves of gilt, and above are soaring vaulted ceilings painted with scenes. In the Oratory are two paintings by Caravaggio, one of which, The Beheading Of St John The Baptist, is considered his finest work and the only one he signed – a dark, brooding Renaissance masterpiece.


St John’s Co-Cathedral by Rama Knight

For lunch in a historic setting, the Harbour Club is set inside a 1712 warehouse with interiors crafted from the deck of a ship and a creative menu that includes asparagus millefoglie, and duck breast with plum and thyme sauce.


Upper Barrakka Gardens by Rama Knight

For some fresh air and a sense of perspective, the Upper & Lower Barrakka Gardens make excellent look-out posts over the sparkling sweep of the Grand Harbour and its to-and-fro boats. The gardens were once the private exercise grounds for the Knights, with terraced arches and tropical plants – see if you can spot 17th-century Fort Ricasoli, which starred in Game Of Thrones – and take the modern lift down to the harbourside.


Chef Jonathan Brincat at Noni by Rama Knight

Chef Jonathan Brincat is another chef taking a sideways look at Malta’s ingredients: his recently opened restaurant Noni is set in a former bakers – the old sign still hangs outside – and the menu features slow-cooked octopus tagine, oak-smoked pork cutlet, salt-baked beetroot, couscous, and sticky date pudding.

End the evening at Café Society on the time-worn steps of St John Street, run by Thomas Camilleri, who used to run electro-swing nights but is now a lawyer. There’s a screen inside showing silent comedies and cushions outside to watch the world go by from – order a Basil Fawlty (gin, basil, sugar syrup) or an Old Fashioned, and listen to bluegrass or funk on the playlist.


Hop on one of the traditional dgħajsa, the painted boats that date back to Phoenician times and pootle across the Grand Harbour to the Three Cities, the medieval fortified towns of Birgu, Senglea and Cospicua. A cool way of exploring them is by Rolling Geek, a self-drive electric car with a pre-programmed GPS, which will roll you around the Maritime Museum, Malta at War Museum and the Inquisitor’s Palace.


Traditional dgħajsa boat by Rama Knight

Back in Valletta, take time to see the Is-Suq Tal-Belt, the iron-framed Victorian market that reopened earlier this year with a fresh array of food stalls, cafés and restaurants – it’s a great snapshot of the island’s food scene.

In the afternoon, walk the old-town streets and look out for landmarks such as the Theatre Manoel, one of Europe’s oldest stages and a baroque masterpiece. During 2018, it’s one of the many venues used for European City of Culture shows and performances. Take a wander down Strait Street, once a notorious navy hangout but now revitalised with cocktails bars and cafés.

In the evening, go to Cru on Valletta’s version of Bond Street, where Sicilian sommelier Paolo Belluardo pours excellent wines with a story or two. At Trabuxu, the bistro-style interiors are decorated with paintings and vintage signs, with rabbit pastille and fish tartare on the menu. It’s a suitably atmospheric Maltese favourite to end your weekend at.


The streets of Valletta by Rama Knight


Malta, and Valletta in particular, are enjoying a boom in interesting, individual places to stay. Many have been sensitively created in the 17th-century palazzo that give the city so much of its character, many with colourful box balconies that jut out over the narrow streets like ship’s cabins, and grand doors opening onto cool, lofty courtyards crafted from limestone.


66 Saint Paul’s boutique hotel by Rama Knight

66 St Paul’s

This boutique hotel has marble and parquet floors, high-beamed ceilings, views over either Saint Paul’s Street or the harbour, and private balconies. There’s also a courtyard space carved out of limestone in which to cool down with a drink and breakfast of Maltese breads and egg frittata – plus there’s a rare rooftop pool with sunbeds and views over the sea and the Three Cities. 66saintpaulsmalta.com


66 Saint Paul’s boutique hotel by Rama Knight

Domus Zamittello

A carefully restored 16th-century palazzo (there’s underfloor heating under the marble lobby) near the theatre on Republic Street. The baroque elegance of the architecture, with its painted coffered ceilings and cistern is reflected in the design of its rooms, which have antique-style furniture and embroidered linens. A plunge pool and restaurant will open later this year. domuszamittello.com


Domus Zamittello by Rama Knight

De Vilhena

Close to Strait Street and the Theatre Manoel, this has a pared-down contemporary feel with floor lamps, original artworks, navy-blue panelling and natural fabrics – as well as its own pizzeria and trattoria. devilhena.com

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